Op Ed: Gaurav Sundaram On Six Strategies For Expanding Travel Programs Into India

Expanding global business travel programs to India, and in particular bringing in the operations of travel management company used in other markets, can prove challenging. As laid out by Gaurav Sundaram, president of India-based consultancy ProKonsul, a well-researched strategy, strong executive endorsement and a clear go-to-market plan can be the keys to your success.


As per World Bank, India in 2018 had the seventh-largest gross domestic product. It is the world’s largest democracy, with a free press and strong banking and financial institutions. Most multinational organizations have significant business operations in the country, especially related to information technology and technology development. The universal language of business in India is English.

The Global Business Travel Association ranks India as the seventh-largest business travel market at $46 billion, having grown north of 10 percent annually for the last six years. Amadeus, Sabre and Worldspan are active in India. There is 100 percent e-ticketing across all airlines. 

Despite all this, why is India the elephant in the room when it comes to global business travel programs? To develop success strategies, let’s start by understanding the market.

Here are some of the most frequent pushbacks that global travel managers come across when launching an India program.

• There is a strong resistance to changing the status quo.
• “Why pursue change when travel suppliers in India charge minimal fees?”
• Indian travelers expect “high-touch” service.
• Global solutions, according to travel managers, “don’t work here.”
• There is limited data on current and historical program parameters. 
• Employee customer satisfaction scorecards and vendor net promoter scores generally are absent.
• There is a predominance of the legacy operating models: Implants, call to book and email to book .
• Vendor payments and T&E claims are generally processed manually.
• There are varying degrees of technical maturity in self-booking technology applications. 

These challenges may appear insurmountable, but the following strategies should help. They can apply to other emerging markets that also operate very differently than North America.

1. Invest in understanding the market reality.

Enterprise business travel in India is lagging in innovation and acceptance of new ideas. There are many pockets of individual excellence but as an overall market, India today is where China was in the early 2000s: ripe for change and disruption but slow to accept that reality.

Though most Indian CXOs know travel is a big cost, they regard business travel more as a fulfillment activity rather than one that requires strategic management. Their ability to drive change is limited due to largely opaque systems and a lack of quality data.

This situation is due in large part to an industry unable to ideate value and drive best practices. Business travel is largely a price play. It’s common for travel management companies to charge minimal transaction fees and deliver a host of free services.

Success for an Indian business travel buyer or administrator still is governed by the primary objective of securing the lowest possible transaction fees or ticket cost. There are some Fortune 500 companies in India that still buy business travel entirely through retail channels.

This means that you will first need to sell the value of your program to your Indian leadership. This will require articulating cost, benefits and value. 

Relationships between buyers and travel sellers are generally antagonistic and often driven by lack of trust and transparency, which contrasts with more collaborative TMC/client relationships in other markets around the globe.

Account management in India is more a relationship management function than a strategic one. Securing high-quality account managers can be a challenge.

Almost all global TMCs operating in India default to local India-based self-booking solutions instead of products designed for a more global user base. Indian self-booking tools have some country-specific advantages but don’t offer a 100 percent touch-less capability for international ticketing. Their user interfaces and mobile applications can be sub-optimal. Some allow the TMC to markup fares.

Global technology implementations are less common and much more expensive.  Technical support, help desks and project management in many cases are located in other geographies.

You will need to make note of all these nuances, critically evaluate them and ensure your global TMC partner is committed to deliver on your expectations. 

2. Address unique India-specific needs.

Indians require visas to travel to all but 59 countries worldwide. Compare this with American or German citizens who enjoy visa-free entry in over 180 countries. Consular requirements are complex and time-consuming. The country-specific documentation and conditions under which a visa is granted can vary even from one consular location within India to the next. This means that for the same visa, for the same destination country, different documentation may be required.

As a result, the time needed to secure a visa must be considered, especially when the employee’s travel is urgent. This factor impacts a self-booking tool implementation, as well. Specific processes are needed to eliminate the possibility of an employee traveling internationally without the requisite destination or transit visa.

Consequently, domestic India air travel is moving to such tools more quickly while international travel remains largely manual. The default approach to keeping international travel booking a manual process also is promoted by TMCs that may not want to invest time and resources to build additional controls. Active intervention by your TMC and self-booking tool provider can help solve the issue.

Gaurav Sundaram, ProKonsul
ProKonsul president Gaurav Sundaram

Most India-based companies do not provide their employees with corporate credit cards. There is a preference to work with foreign exchange advances or equip employees with a foreign exchange advance using a debit card preloaded with a certain quantum of currency.

Most global TMCs don’t have more than 50 percent of their clients in India paying through a card, despite the presence of all major global credit card networks and such card products as lodge cards, purchasing cards and virtual cards. As a result, most payments to TMCs in India use an invoice model in which the TMC charges the client for all transaction fees and other costs during a specified period. The client typically makes the payment by check.

As with self-booking tools, market penetration of credit cards and automated T&E settlement solutions is in the mid-single digits. 

Contrast this with the fact that urban Indians buy most of their personal services, travel and even groceries online using credit cards and e-wallets. India-based companies use and even build the latest technologies for their finance, HR and customer applications. They deploy artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data, etc. They are incredibly tech savvy and employee-focused. Millennials and Gen Y dominate the workforce.

3. Engage with stakeholders.

The next phase is to develop a robust and transparent engagement with your India team, starting with leadership. This is a complex stage that requires objectivity, transparency and market intelligence. Here are steps that will help you through this process:

• Secure a global executive sponsor to support your India project. 
• Understand the India leadership team’s business objectives and preferred corporate direction.
• Engage your travel administrators in India to assess the strengths and gaps in your India program.
• Establish a baseline scorecard. Survey your employees to define their needs and expectations from a new or revised program implementation.
• Evaluate the financial and strategic value that you will deliver.

At this stage, make a formal presentation to the India leadership team and secure their formal buy-in. Be prepared for tough questions. Have facts on hand to support your value proposition. This should help secure an in-country executive sponsor for your program migration objectives. 

4. Operationalize the mandate.

Getting a mandate operationalized is the next big challenge. This requires balancing your global objective with local business needs, and integrating cultural and operational nuances. Be acutely sensitive to underlying sentiments among your users.

Build a clear commercialization plan that tracks milestones. Rather than a “big bang,” start with smaller pilot groups in strategic business units or regional centers. After establishing success, widen the scope of the project. 

Periodic surveying and benchmarking is crucial for tracking progress. A project plan with scheduled check-ins with and sign-offs from your executive sponsors and key stakeholders is imperative. This builds confidence and maintains their engagement.

Extremely high-quality global, in-country account management support will be required from your partners to ensure successful delivery of your program. A thorough project management approach will be required to keep track of the various moving parts. This capability can be a concern with TMCs in India, so make sure you validate your account manager’s credentials before taking them onboard. 

5. Go live.

Planning a smooth “go live” can be both exciting and nerve-wrenching. Getting to the moment of truth when the program transitions will require several components working in tandem:

• Structured employee engagement. This can include roadshows to socialize the changes in program management and operational processes, and a robust user feedback and survey mechanism.
• Active direction from your Indian executive sponsor to drive unambiguous messaging.
• A smooth, phased de-implementation of the incumbent TMC.
• Progressive rollout of new operations.

Something will go wrong; this is a reality. It’s important to have a tiered level of support and escalation protocol for speedy resolution.

6. Track success.

Generally speaking, a program in a market as complex as India should be monitored directly for at least six months after it goes live. This requires active management and involvement of your entire team, including: 

• Frequent scheduled meetings with your project leader and in-country support teams
• A success scorecard that tracks vendor performance, user feedback and progress on  business-critical parameters
• Routine re-training and refreshers so the employee user base gets comfortable and compliant with the changes
• Executive updates for leadership on performance, gaps and steps to improve

Securing success in complex markets like India requires market intelligence, planning, effective communications and empathy. The results can be very gratifying!

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Gaurav Sundaram

Author: Gaurav Sundaram

Gaurav Sundaram is the president of ProKonsul Consulting, a business travel management consulting firm focused on India and Asia. Gaurav brings three decades of leadership experience in the global business travel, technology and consulting domains. His span of experience includes significant success in managing complex businesses, establishing successful startups, strategic multinational business development and account management. Gaurav previously served as Egencia's country director in India. He introduced fully integrated enterprise self-booking technology to the corporate travel industry in India in 2009 and is recognized as an industry expert across India and Asia. Connect with Gaurav on LinkedIn.
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